Camera: Mukul Bhandari, Shiv Kumar Maurya
Editor: Deepthy Ramdas
“I know only how to eat a roti.”
“I cook once a month and mum cooks 29 days.”
“I am unable to make it ya!”
These were just some of the responses I was met with, when I asked some Indian guys to try making the perfect round roti. Yup, the same staple, of which half of our country is a fan.
But what would happen if the women suddenly decided to stop making rotis instead?
Who will Make the Chapatis?
Well, as much as we’d like to ask the rhetorical question time and again, the chapter plate is actually borrowed from an eponymous book by Bishakha Dutta, which talks about the biggest opposition the earliest all-women panchayats in Maharashtra faced, i.e. if you are handling the panchayat, WHO WILL MAKE THE CHAPATIS!
Vikram Doctor, a celebrated food columnist and host of The Real Food podcast, says:
I think that remark (who will make the chapatis) also encapsulates how rotis are seen as womens work, and reason to keep women at home.Vikram Doctor, Food Columnist
This genderisation of the roti is not the only instance of its kind, of course!
Beti Bachao, Roti Khao
This is a poster against female foeticide. It has a picture of a very young girl, odhni draped over head, beloing a roti. The caption accompanying it asks in Hindi, ‘How will you eat the rotis she makes, if you kill her off even before she wakes?’
Well, leave alone women. Even the girl-child is being considered a roti-making automaton here. Sigh!
But where did this deeply sexist, genderisation of the roti actually begin?
Here’s what food writer, Madhulika Dash says,
The genderisation of roti actually began with the poori. The idea behind this was that apparently women were considered better at the manipulation of ingredients. So whether it was a poori, or a paratha, or even a tortilla (in Mexico), anything which had the potential of using batter, was considered a feminine quality.Madhulika Dash, Food Writer
In fact, whether they live in a village, or a city, or videsh as part of the diaspora, rotis are the one domesticating tool that women have still not been able to get off their plate!
Why, which desi girl has seen Gurinder Chadha’s Bend it Like Beckham and not identified with budding footballer, Jess, who is told by her Indian mom that she will not be a good daughter-in-law if she can’t make round chapatis!
To this effect, Vikram Doctor recalls a personal anecdote,
I think one of the most powerful stories of gendered rotis in this sense was told to me by a friend who is an excellent cook, who was taught by her grandmother, who was (also) an amazing cook. But the one thing her grandmother didn’t teach her was how to make rotis. Because, she told my friend, it was vital that she (my friend) get the education and the resources to make sure she could always employ someone else to make rotis. What she said was “always have someone else to make rotis, or they will take you for granted and you will be making rotis all your life.”Vikram Doctor, Food Columnist
Being taken for granted — well, isn’t that the reality for so many women making rotis day and night, for their families in India (and even Pakistan!).
My family is no exception. My mum has long been feeding perfectly round chapatis to the parivaar ever since she got married. Even though she is a working woman, she wakes up at 5 AM to cook for the family, and only then leaves for work. Meanwhile, the rest of us are busy snoring!
For an average family of four, a woman makes close to 900 rotis a month. If we were to calculate the number of rotis that same woman makes in, say, 20 years, it comes to more than 2 lakh rotis!
But all that labour, of course, is minus the pay!
Even then, our mums don’t shy away from making customisable rotis. In fact, it is considered a measure of how good a homemaker they are. As Madhulika Dash notes,
Some like their rotis kadak, some like a softer version. That signifies that women who cooked rotis for different tastes, could manage their temperaments, tastes and still weave a good home.Madhulika Dash, Food Writer
But what about automating rotis? Even though the thriving middle class India can afford it, they aren’t quite buying the idea.
In his podcast on the automation of rotis, Doctor had interviewed Naomi Duguid, whose book Flatbreads and Flavours argues how rotis are so customisable (courtesy the ladies) in Indian homes, that they could never be automated!
No machine could quite match the subtle variations (as women do with customised rotis for different members of the family) and get it right each time - it would be competing with perfection, Duguid says. And yet the point is that this perfection was so taken for granted by the husband that he would only have noticed - and rebuked his wife - if it was less than perfect. And that’s another metaphor, if you like, for womens work. Endless, tedious and thankless- only noticed if it went wrong.Vikram Doctor, Journalist